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From Television City in Hollywood, it's The Race for Ralph! And here's your host, Bill Cullen!"
"Thank you very much, Johnny Olsen! Welcome once again to The Race for Ralph, where contestants attempt to get through an entire NBA schedule with the most losses. They walk, they squawk and, for a chance to draft the most sought-after college player in a decade, they participate in a humiliating and debasing experience. And we think you're going to love it!
"The rules are simple to follow, which is more than can be said for any of our contestants. [Laughter.] The Race for Ralph is a scramble to see who can finish with the worst record in the NBA's two conferences and then win a coin toss for the right to draft 7'4" Center Ralph Sampson of Virginia.
"Our first contestant today is Charlie Thomas, who is in his first year as chairman of the board of the Houston Rockets. Charlie is the father of three girls and 20 car dealerships. When he bought the franchise he was quoted as saying, 'I see less of a need for improvement in the Rockets' organization than in almost any car dealership I've ever bought.' The Rockets then lost 82.9% of their games. Would you buy a used car from this man? Charlie Thomas, come on down!
"Our second contestant is Frank Mariani, president of the Indiana Pacers. Frank is a businessman from California who likes real estate and horse racing. Father of two, he has never appeared publicly in the state of Indiana and has helped the Pacers run up debts of about $6.5 million. Frank's latest shrewd management decision was to kick off the Pacers' 1983-84 ticket campaign in Indianapolis by announcing the team would probably be folded or moved to California at the end of the season. Good thinking. Frank Mariani, come on down!
"Our final contestant is Ted Stepien, president of the Cleveland Cavaliers. O.K., call him an honorary contestant. Poor old Ted. He's been right there in the race for last place, and he doesn't even have a shot at the big prize. Father of six girls, Ted is a real outdoorsman. He once dropped softballs from a Cleveland skyscraper to promote his new slow-pitch league and subsequently paid $35,875 in damages to a woman whose wrist was broken by one of the balls. Since Ted bought the Cavs in 1980, they have compiled the worst three-year record since the 1971-74 Philadelphia 76ers and piled up debts estimated at $13 million. And the franchise doesn't even have a first-round pick until 1987. Plus, he's just announced he's selling the team! Ted Stepien, come on down!
"And now the coin, please. It's a toss-off between Charlie Thomas, champion loser in the Western Conference, and Frank Mariani, Number One nowhere man in the Eastern Conference, for seven feet, four inches of basketball dynamite!"
There may have been gaudier carnivals of greed than this season's Race for Ralph, but certainly not by any league that could less afford the harm to its image than the NBA got from this fiasco. The Rockets, possessed of Cleveland's first-round pick (via a trade) as well as their own, set out late last October with a chance to make the ultimate pick a lead-pipe cinch. There they were, the least in the West, and holding the pick of a pygmy of the East. Houston didn't tarry, losing its first 10 games and sinking to the bottom of the Western Conference. It was doubly cheered to see Cleveland lurch to a 3-22 record in the East. "When we started the season," says Rockets President and General Manager Ray Patterson, "we figured we'd be in the coin flip, but we thought it would be with Cleveland's pick. Then we got on a real high, thinking we wouldn't even have to flip." The "high" Patterson is referring to was the Rockets' dreadful start.
The Race for Ralph was actually set in motion more than five years ago—while Sampson was still a junior at Harrisonburg (Va.) High—when Philadelphia traded the late Terry Furlow to Cleveland for two Cavaliers' first-round draft choices. Of course, no one could have foreseen that in the intervening years the Cavaliers would be sold three times and go through six head coaches and 54 players, or that the 1983 pick might one day be worth squandering an entire season for.
Early in this season, there didn't seem to be much of a race. Indiana was 9-12 at one point in December and had a better record at that time than the New York Knicks, a team that has since made it into the playoffs, which begin this week. But the Pacers forged ahead in the Race for Ralph when they dropped 12 games in a row—the longest streak this season—starting Feb. 16, after they traded Center Clemon Johnson for the 76ers' first-round pick this year and rookie Forward Russ Schoene.